How are we to understand the vampire? Is it myth, a mere legend, the story of romantic, gothic writers? Or is the vampire based in fact -- at least to some extent?
The popular notion of the vampire is largely based on the classic 1931 film "Dracula" with Bela Lugosi. In our minds the vampire is sophisticated, European, a creature of the noble classes -- in short, a Count who lives in a castle and enjoys the finer things in life... but who never drinks... wine. The vampire has a taste for something else; and that is what really separates him from us. The blood. The vampire must drink the fresh blood taken from the living, for he has none of his own.
In more recent years the concept of the vampire has come to America, to New Orleans (although New Orleans can seem more European than American at times). Anne Rice's Lestat and other vampires from the film and novel Interview with the Vampire also have a sophistication about them not unlike Count Dracula. They are knowledgeable, elegant, cultured, but also savage. Additionally, they are sensual and alluring. This is another significant element of our modern view of the vampire, an element which separates them from all other fiends and ghouls: vampires have sex appeal.
But bloodlust and eroticism are not the only aspects of the vampire. And not the key. The key aspect of the vampire is death -- and everything that death conjures up in our minds. And the eternal human questions about death, our anxiety and our nightmares about this inevitability feed the story of the vampires.
"The blood is the life," says Bela Lugosi's Dracula (a phrase originally found in the Bible); later adding, "to die, to be really dead -- that must be glorious." And it is this ancient issue of life and death and blood that explains the antiquity of the vampire myth as well. For the first vampire was not Count Dracula. The first vampires had their origins in the centuries long before Christ, who in modern times is the ultimate adversary of the ostensibly Satanic vampire -- remember, the vampire shrinks before the sacred cross.
The vampire legend dates back to the earliest times of human civilization to the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and other peoples of the ancient Orient. The original vampire was not like the sophisticated, suave European aristocrat that we know of today. The vampire, at its origins, was a monster.
When did vampires begin? As with many legends, the exact date of origin is unknown; but evidence of the vampire tale can be found with the ancient Chaldeans in Mesopotamia, near the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, and with Assyrian writings on clay or stone tablets. The land of the Chaldeans is also called the "Ur of the Chaldeans," which was the original home of Abraham from the Bible.
"Lilith" was a possible vampire from the ancient Hebrew Bible and its interpretations. Although she is described in the book of Isaiah, her roots are more likely in Babylonian demonology. Lilith was a monster who roamed at night taking on the appearance of an owl. She would hunt, seeking to kill newborn children and pregnant women. Lilith was the wife of Adam before there was Adam and Eve, according to tradition; but she was demonized because she refused to obey Adam. (Or to see it from a more liberated viewpoint, she demanded equal rights with Adam). Naturally, she was considered evil for such "radical" desires and became a vampire who eventually attacked the children of Adam and Eve -- namely, all human descendants.
References to vampires can be found in many lands, and some scholars believe this indicates that the vampire story developed independently in these various lands and was not passed from one to the other. Such an independently occurring folktale is curious indeed.
References to vampires can be found among the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean such as Egypt, Greece and Rome. The ancient Greeks believed in the strigoe or lamiae, who were monsters who ate children and drank their blood. Lamia, as the mythology goes, was the lover of Zeus; but Zeus' wife, Hera, fought against her. Lamia was driven insane, and she killed her own offspring. At night, it was said, she hunted other human children to kill as well.
One tale known by both the Greeks and Romans, for example, concerns the wedding of a young man named Menippus. At the wedding a guest, who was a noted philosopher called Apollonius of Tyana, carefully observed the bride, who was said to be beautiful. Apollonius finally accused the wife of being a vampire, and according to the story (as it was later told by a scholar named Philostratus in the first century A.D.) the wife confessed to vampirism. Allegedly she was planning to marry Menippus merely to have him handy as a source of fresh blood to drink.
Vampire tales occurred in ancient China, where the monsters were called kiang shi. In ancient India and Nepal, as well, vampires may have existed -- at least in legend. Ancient paintings on the walls of caves depict blood drinking creatures; the Nepalese "Lord of Death" is depicted holding a blood-filled goblet in the form of a human skull standing in a pool of blood. Some of these wall paintings are as old as 3000 B.C., it is believed. Rakshasas are described in the ancient Indian holy writings called the Vedas. These writings (circa 1500 B.C.) depict the Rakshasas (or destroyers) as vampires. There is also a monster in ancient India's lore which hangs from a tree upside-down, not unlike a bat, and is devoid of its own blood. This creature, called Baital, is in legend a vampire.
Other ancient Asians, such as the Malayans, believed in a type of vampire called the "Penanggalen." This creature consisted of a human head with entrails that left its body and searched for the blood of others, especially of infants. The creature lived by drinking the victims' blood.
It is also said that the vampire may have lived in Mexico prior to the arrival of Spanish Conquistadors, according to the renown vampire author Montague Summers whose 1928 book The Vampire -- His Kith and Kin is a classic. He further wrote that Arabia knew of the vampire as well. Vampire-like beings appeared in the "Tales of the Arabian Nights" called algul; this was a ghoul which consumed human flesh.
Africa, with its spirit-based religions, may be seen as having legends of vampire-like beings as well. One tribe, the Caffre, held the belief that the dead could return and survive on the blood of the living.
In ancient Peru there were also vampire legends; the canchus were believed to be devil worshipers who sucked the blood of the young.
Thus from ancient times and from a bounty of exotic lands came forth the vampires. It is from these ancient fears about death and the magical, life-sustaining powers of blood that the vampires as we know them today have evolved.